Home » Robert Lee: Rescuing Leftover Cuisine @ Talks at Google (Transcript)

Robert Lee: Rescuing Leftover Cuisine @ Talks at Google (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Gates Millennium Scholar Robert Lee’s fireside chat: Rescuing Leftover Cuisine @ Talks at Google conference. This event occurred on January 29th, 2018.


LAUREN LEBEOUF: Robert, thank you for being here.

ROBERT LEE: Of course.

LAUREN LEBEOUF: We’re happy to have you. So as we just learned in the video, food insecurity is very personal to you. Can you talk more about that?

ROBERT LEE: Sure. Yeah. My parents were Korean, from South Korea, and they essentially moved over without really knowing any English. And so my dad was a civil engineer and my mom was a banker. But when they came over to the States, that really didn’t matter because they didn’t know any English. And so I remember the times when we just are one huge bowl of ramen for a meal for the whole day because that was pretty much it. And you know, as I mentioned in the video, you just think that’s normal and you just kind of live with it. But it was to the point where I just hated ramen because we just had it so much.

But I grew up with kind of that kind of environment. And my parents would always tell me about how any food that you– I’m sure people have the same experience in terms of stories that they’re told. But I was told that any food that I would waste would basically have to be eaten in my afterlife all at once. So I kind of grew up with the values of never wasting food and really cherishing food whenever we had it.

LAUREN LEBEOUF: Wow! Very cool. And you won a CNN Hero Award and you’re on Forbes 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs list. Your parents must be very proud. So what prompted you — you left a very secure job in finance and you started RLC. What prompted that?

ROBERT LEE: Oh, man. So many things I think because the two issues were so close to me and so personal, I think having the opportunity to kind of give back in this way, in such a direct and commonsense way and efficient way, and the opportunity to scale a solution that was such a huge problem, food waste and hunger and all these different kind of facets of those two things. And while I was working at JP Morgan, I kind of compared my time of how much time I was spending and what impact that had at JP Morgan, and the same amount of time and impact it would have had. Rescuing Leftover Cuisine. It was just two worlds apart. And I just couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to do something more meaningful with my time, and had an outlet to do it. So I took the opportunity, took the risk. And yeah, it was great.

LAUREN LEBEOUF: A risk analyst who took a risk; I love it. It’s great. Thank you. OK, so what was the process of starting RLC?

ROBERT LEE: Yeah. So starting RLC pretty much came from way back into college. So during college was when I came across the concept of food rescue. There was a club that brought leftover dining hall food to homeless shelters called Two Birds One Stone.


ROBERT LEE: At NYU. And it basically kind of opened my eyes to food rescue as a concept, and to the fact that food can be donated, and that there’s so much excess food. So we were basically– a bunch of us, a couple of friends and I, were kind of executive board members of that club and kind of expanded it throughout the four years of NYU, because it started out as just one dining hall to one homeless shelter. But eventually, under our leadership, were able to grow it out to all the different dining halls, and basically grow it out. And that kind of opened my eyes to the fact that it’s not just dining halls.

It’s also restaurants and different food businesses that can donate their food, and that there’s such a huge need at homeless shelters. And so that first experience paved the way for the first inkling of an idea of RLC at Two Birds One Stone. We kind of did everything on a Google spreadsheet, coordinating all these different volunteers and things like that. But we had this dream of having an automated system that would connect excess food to homeless shelters, and have volunteers be the solution because during college years, we had the time to do a bunch of research and figure out that solutions to food rescue, in terms of food rescue, existed and had really great impact in terms of great work of City Harvest and Food Bank and things like that. But there was a little bit of a gap of how much food there was out there versus what they could pick up.

And so we wanted to basically tackle that specific gap and operate in that niche with the model that we kind of learned and perfected during the college years. And so we took all that kind of together and then entered into a venture competition, ended up winning some seed money, and pretty much launched it from there and kept on going.

LAUREN LEBEOUF: Very cool. So what’s the biggest challenge that you’ve faced as a social entrepreneur?

ROBERT LEE: There’s so many I think– in general, I think the uncertainty is the biggest challenging aspect. There’s no way to project in terms of how many new food donors we’re going to bring on board, how much pounds of food we’re going to be able to bring on board. But you kind of rely on the different aspects that you can rely on, like how much time you put in, how much effort you put in, how many volunteers you can corral to the cause, And you basically see what happens. Because of how local it is and how small it is, it’s sometimes outsized in terms of expectations of what you would think you get out of it. But it turns out to be really good sometimes. So I would say just that uncertainty is the biggest challenge.

LAUREN LEBEOUF: Cool. So let’s talk about food waste, which is astounding in this country. We heard a few stats in the video, but since you’re the expert, I would love for you to talk more about it. Give us all of your wisdom on food waste.

ROBERT LEE: Sure. I think – yeah. When you think about food waste, it is just food waste. But when you think about the different facets of what that means, it’s kind of mind blowing because it’s not just about food waste. It’s about the environmental impact of that food waste, the moral implications, what that food has potential to do, as well as the actual economic impact of that.

So on the environmental issue, people don’t really know that food waste is one of the largest, if not the largest component of solid waste in the waste stream and actually lands in landfills, where it basically contributes to carbon emissions through methane gases, which is actually 20 times worse than carbon dioxide. And if you take food waste as a kind of a global emitter of carbon emissions and take it out as if it’s like a country, it would rank third right after the USA and China. So just as a kind of environmental issue after the fact of wasting food, it’s a huge kind of issue. But even going before that supply chain of actually wasting the food, the amount of land, amount of natural resources used to grow that food is all wasted as well. To grow the food that we all eat in this country, we use half the US land, 80% of the US fresh water, 10% of US energy budget is used to transport that food in trucks and supply chain and things like that. So all of that is wasted when you waste 40% of the food that you’re producing. So it’s the environmental impact on both sides.

And so when you combine those things, it’s a huge, huge, non-negligible amount. And that’s just the environmental side. I mean, there’s a whole bunch of studies and things like that. And I think there needs to be more studies on the environmental impact of food waste. But the NRDC does a really good job of telling people about the issue of food waste. And one of the other things that they mention, obviously, is the fact that the potential of food waste is huge It’s a $165 billion problem in the US. It’s obviously an economic issue. People are buying food from the supermarkets and then wasting it. You might as well just not buy 40% of the food that you’re buying at the supermarket. So it’s a huge economic cost as well. Obviously, the US energy budget and things like that, that’s our taxes going into food that’s like going to be wasted, like corn, subsidies for corn.

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